Dear Harvard: Deval Patrick Gives a Good Graduation Speech

Patrick was selected to deliver Harvard's commencement address.

Former Governor Deval Patrick was selected to speak at Harvard’s commencement ceremony this spring, following in the recent footsteps Oprah Winfrey and Michael Bloomberg. Patrick just finished his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, he’s a Harvard alumnus, and a pretty good speaker, so for many, it’s a welcome choice.

The internet being the internet, of course, not everyone’s pleased. Without making the mistake of assuming the internet commenters on the Harvard Crimson‘s website act as a representative sample of public opinion, one does note that many of the comments are in the vein of this one:



“Had much higher hopes for a Harvard (Harvard!!!!) Commencement Speaker. He’s a state-level figure, maybe a regional figure at best, and Harvard should champion internationally recognized and accomplished individuals–JK Rowling, Oprah, etc.”

This kind of critique—a focus on speaker’s international prestige rather than his effectiveness for the gig—reflects a reality about the commencement speaker arms race. Each year, competitive universities strive for luminaries that their assembled communities will find appropriately impressive to the outside world. Even Gov. Patrick knew that it wasn’t really about what he said when he spoke at Boston University’s commencement last year:

“Seriously giving a commencement address is a high honor but a tough assignment when you know, as I do, that few of you are listening and none of you will remember a single word I say,” he admitted then.

For what it’s worth, if we judge instead the quality of the speaker rather than his international name brand, Patrick’s a pretty good choice. I’ve watched a lot of the speeches given at Boston-area universities in recent years, and his message at B.U.’s commencement—that people should look away from their screens and engage with those around them—stuck in my head. (I didn’t have to look it up today to remember the general gist, to be honest..) Let’s not oversell it, but hey, he chose a topic that would resonate with his audience, and he dealt with it in a complex way that didn’t make him seem too out of touch. Admittedly, a lot of people stared at their screens as he did so:

Contrast that with Oprah’s speech in 2013. The thing I remember most about her address is that it was delivered by Oprah Frickin’ Winfrey, and I smiled every time she extended the ends of her words. It was certainly insightful and drew on a hell of a career, but the point is: if people are willing to open up to caring about more than the star wattage of their commencement speaker, they may find that, against the odds, they find themselves actually listening to a pretty good speech.